“We Have Ways of Making You Talk” — How One Nazi Used Kindness to Draw Secrets from POWs

Many Allied POWs expected treatment like this from their Nazi captors; instead some got a mild mannered interrogator in the form of Hanns Scharff.

“One German interrogator managed to draw crucial military secrets from more than 90 percent of Allied fliers he questioned. And he did so using some rather unconventional methods — namely kindness.”

WHILE TALK RADIO hosts, political pundits and even a certain former U.S. vice president may be quick to defend the use of “enhanced interrogation” techniques (aka torture) on enemy combatants, history shows that carrots often work better than sticks.

Hanns Scharff

Hanns Scharff

Case in point: According to the BBC’s history site, one Second World War German interrogator managed to draw crucial military secrets from more than 90 percent of Allied fliers he questioned. And he did so using some rather unconventional methods — namely kindness.

While the newly-captured air crew who stood before Hanns Scharff at the temporary Luftwaffe ‘transit camp’ at Oberursel, Germany were expecting to face pliers, thumbscrews or maybe rubber truncheons, what they got instead was hospitality, sympathy and even friendship.[1] In fact, pilots became so close with Scharff, they ended up revealing a treasure trove of details about their planes, weaponry as well as air combat tactics.

Arguably the most accomplished interrogator in all of Nazi Germany, the 32-year-old Rastenberg native had no experience in intelligence gathering before the war – his methods were entirely self-taught. A one-time car salesman, Scharff was drafted in 1939 and assigned to a panzer grenadier outfit — only his fluency in English saved him from being posted to the front lines. He was promoted to lance corporal and transferred to military intelligence where he studied interrogation techniques. In 1943, Scharff began questioning captured American fliers.

He soon realized that a softer touch when dealing with POWs yielded far more information than the routine approach, which relied heavily on fear, deprivation and intimidation. He often presented himself as a friend to the isolated prisoners, shunning a uniform in favour of civilian clothes, and warning POWs that if they didn’t provide him with something useful the SS might intervene.[2]

Another of Scharff’s tactics was to glean as much as he could from a prisoner’s personal belongings and then use the innocuous fragments of information to create the impression that the Nazis had detailed dossiers on each and every Allied flier.[3] His prisoners often believed that anything they disclosed was probably already well known to the Germans.

And Scharff didn’t stop there.

In order to put his prisoners ever more at ease, he organized leisurely day trips to zoos and local attractions and even planned hiking excursions, picnics as well as spins in German warplanes. All the while, Scharff would look for opportunities to draw more intelligence from the prisoners about Allied equipment, tactics and strategy. [4] He even had his detainees sign a guest book before being transferred to other camps.

Amazingly, many POWs who were ‘entertained’ by Scharff kept in touch with their old interrogator following the war. He became close friends with bomber hero Jimmy Doolittle, as well as the top American European fighter ace Francis Gabreski, who was one of Scharff’s ‘guests’ at Oberursel.[5] In fact, in 1980, he was even invited to attend a veterans’ reunion in the United States with some of his former prisoners. Astonishingly, Scharrf was also asked to consult the Pentagon on interrogation techniques. He wrote a book about his experiences during the war too. It’s available here.

Scharff moved to America in the 1950s and pursued a career as a visual artist. His mosaics adorn the California state capitol building, the University of Southern California and Dixie College in Utah. A large mosaic of his also hangs to this day in the Cinderella’s Castle in Disney World, Florida.[6]

Hanns Scharff died in 1992 at the age of 85.

(Originally published on Oct. 19, 2012)


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9 comments for ““We Have Ways of Making You Talk” — How One Nazi Used Kindness to Draw Secrets from POWs

  1. 19 October, 2012 at 8:51 am

    Very interesting. Sounds like he originated the good cop (Scharff) technique versus the bad cop (threat of the SS) to get some of the results!

    • MHN
      19 October, 2012 at 8:52 am

      True enough. Reminds me of an old saying about flies, honey and vinegar.

      • 19 October, 2012 at 8:53 am

        Well put!

  2. 19 October, 2012 at 3:12 pm

    Very interesting and informative. As a side note, the US developed the same parallel techniques in a way at Byron Hot Springs in California. The initial Japanese prisoners were interacting with Japanese-American US Army MIS soldiers who were dressed down in comparison to their Caucasian officers. Their groundwork set the interrogation standards for the rest of the war with Japan.

    I enjoy reading your short stories.

    • MHN
      19 October, 2012 at 4:04 pm

      I’ve got to read more about that. I didn’t think that large numbers of Japanese surrendered to the Americans. Come to think of it, I can’t recall ever reading about any American-run Japanese POW camps. There were in fact many camps throughout the US and Canada for German and Italian prisoners.

      • 19 October, 2012 at 4:18 pm

        The code name for the POW camp was “Camp Tracy”. It was top secret. The POWs were first off-loaded at Angel Island.

  3. 20 October, 2012 at 11:01 pm

    I wished to add something to what you noted in a comment. I hope you will see this only as historical perspective.

    Actually, a number of Japanese soldiers did try to surrender. If we take Iwo Jima as an example, there were more than you imagine. However, as “unpublished” history records records, a number of them were killed. (No, no political statement being made here about right or wrong. It was an all out and bitter, personal war.)

    On Iwo Jima, there was no front line as you know. The Marines rarely saw their enemy during the day. However, when a Japanese soldier would surrender or be captured (as when wounded), their throats were slit by the Marines after the Nisei MIS guys would interrogate them for info if inland. The Marines slit their throats as shooting them would give their position away. Further, you could not risk losing another Marine’s life trying to “walk them back to CP” as the enemy would pop out from every hole or cave. Similar things were recorded on the earlier major island campaigns.

    However, they started to surrender more often after that general time frame. As the war dragged on, more and more of the drafted soldiers were coming from farmlands or cities and were NOT professional “do or die” soldiers as earlier in the war. Many were underage or much older. My Aunt Michie’s husband was taken in at 35 years of age and was dispatched to China/Manchuria. He survived the war as it had ended but had to elude the Chinese understandably.

    At Camp Tracy, one ploy the Nisei (i.e., American soldiers – or MIS – who were very fluent like my father) used to get them to “spill it” was to casually mention what would happen if the FAMILY of the captured soldier were to find out they did not commit suicide. In fact, many of the captured soldiers gave false names on account of that reason.

  4. MHN
    21 October, 2012 at 1:12 pm

    Hey Mustang: Thanks for that!

  5. Vinnie O
    4 May, 2017 at 7:23 pm

    Thank you VERY much. I must have read his book, or one based on it, more than 40 years ago, and I had no idea what the title might be. My favorite story was about a Polish-American pilot whose plane was shot down around Christmas time. The American was a Catholic and felt a STRONG obligation to attend Christmas mass. The interrogator COMPLETELY understand the Pole’s situation, since many Germans were Catholics (including Hitler). So, the interrogator bundled the American into a German staff car and drove him to the city’s cathedral for midnight mass. The American, still in an enemy uniform, stood in the back of the crowded church with his interrogator (also in uniform), and after mass the American was taken to the train station to move on to a Luftstalag. No waterboarding, no hanging by his wrists in wet clothes in a freezing cell. I will now IMMEDIATELY locate a copy of the book on Bookfinder.

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